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As Economic Mood Rises, So May Prospects of GOP

September 22, 2006|Molly Hennessy-Fiske | Times Staff Writer

Americans have become more optimistic about the economy, and President Bush is getting some of the credit, a new Times/Bloomberg poll shows.

As voters say the economy will influence their choices in November more than any other national issue, including the war in Iraq and terrorism, Republicans seeking reelection could benefit.

Consumer confidence fell this summer as gas prices peaked and the housing market weakened, particularly in California. Those polled in July were almost evenly split on the state of the economy, with 49% saying it was doing badly.

Now, however, the optimists outnumber the pessimists by 10 percentage points, with 54% saying the economy is doing well.

"There's a lot of conflicting indicators, but things seem to be cruising along pretty steadily," said respondent David Busch, 38, a sales executive in Redmond, Wash., who describes himself as an independent voter. "We've seen a lot of alarmist talk about housing bubbles bursting, gas prices ... that are going to derail the economy, that haven't materialized."

Seven weeks before the midterm elections, the economy remains voters' primary focus. Among registered voters, 32% listed the economy and jobs as the most important election issue, followed by the war in Iraq (21%), immigration (17%) and the war on terrorism (13%).

In follow-up interviews, those polled cited a variety of reasons for feeling better about the economy, including unemployment at a low 4.7% nationally, lower gas prices this month and an interest rate freeze by the Federal Reserve.

That could be good news for Republican candidates, as their party is in power in Washington and may be able to take some credit for the economy.

When the economy is rocky, voters traditionally punish the party in power, said Bruce Oppenheimer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. But when the economy is doing well, their reactions are more difficult to predict, he said.

"This year it's a little more complex to figure because it's clear that the objective measures of how the economy is doing are not striking everybody equally," Oppenheimer said. For instance, pay is rising for some college-educated professionals, but most workers face wage stagnation, he said.

Though falling gas prices could boost Republican candidates, he said, "the question is, will it be too little too late?"

The Times/Bloomberg poll interviewed 1,517 adults, including 1,347 registered voters, nationwide from Saturday to Tuesday under the supervision of Times Poll Director Susan Pinkus. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Although more than half of those polled still disapprove of Bush's handling of the economy, the proportion of those who approve has risen: 43% said they approved, up from 38% in July.

"Everything seems to be going all right. I don't hear a lot of people complaining that much about the economy.... The Feds have kept the interest rates down, so that will probably help," said Chester "Chet" Kusmitch, 69, a retired union carpenter in Crystal Falls, Mich.

Kusmitch said the president was doing a good job handling the economy. "You can't blame everything on the president, for crying out loud.... A lot of things affect the economy."

Charles Gunnells, 54, a disabled diesel mechanic and registered Republican in Salyersville, Ky., said he had doubts about the economy but thought Bush was doing "about as good a job as anybody else could be doing."

He said his opinion of the president had improved in recent weeks as he watched prices at the gas pump drop. "I feel a lot better about it when I see the prices go down," Gunnells said.

Many of those polled agree -- 26% said high oil prices were the greatest threat to the economy today, far ahead of other factors such as foreign competition (18%) and terrorism (16%).

The average price of gas rose to $3.08 in August before dropping to $2.54 this week, according to the Department of Energy. The dip in oil and gas prices is increasing most Americans' confidence in the economy, said Chuck Williams, dean of the business school at the University of the Pacific in Stockton.

"People see the economy in terms of their daily expenses -- what is it going to cost to pick up their child from day care, what does it cost to buy lunch, what does it cost to fill the tank of their car. And if someone's driving an SUV and it's 100 bucks every time you fill up, that gets your attention," Williams said. "If the price is down by 50 cents a gallon, you notice it."

But he said consumers' optimism was tempered by uncertainty about fuel prices as winter approached and by a weakening housing market on both coasts. Homes are lingering on the market in Phoenix, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., and fewer homes are being built. Last month, new home starts were down nearly 20% from last year and 6% from July, the Commerce Department reported Tuesday.

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